Sunday, 17 January 2010

Eric Kennington

Here are two more favourite pictures. These are both pastel sketches by Eric Kennington from WW1. Kennington worked as a war artist in both World Wars, but his First War work is (in my opinion) far superior to the rather formulaic, slightly sentimental portraits of airmen, Home Guards, and the like he did in the Second. He had fought on the Western Front, was wounded, and then returned as an official war artist in 1917. Like the poets of that war, he used skills learned in the studios of bohemian Chelsea to describe and delineate Hell.

Raider with a Cosh, 1917

If you have read the fiction of Andy McNab you will recognise this man. Here is someone who has discovered his capacity for stealth and sudden, improvised violence, refined it into an artform, and put himself, temporarily, at the service of officers who fear and despise him. Look at those hands. Look at the bayoneted rifle shrouded in sacking, and that home-made club. But also look at the frown of concentration in that face clenched around a cigarette.

The Duke of Wellington's words (alleged to have been said before Waterloo) spring to mind: "This army is composed of the scum of the earth. I don't know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God they terrify me!"

Signaller Off Duty, 1916

This, by contrast, is someone captured in a moment of escape. My father was a despatch rider in the Royal Signals in WW2, and he became a specialist in the art of "getting your head down", that is, grabbing opportunities for sleep when they presented themselves. Signals units were very mobile, and despatch riders especially so. After riding a motorbike or driving a truck for several days in stressful conditions, getting "forty winks" under a table somewhere was a necessity. The matching skill, of course, is to wake instantly at a pre-determined time, ready to go.

Kennington, at his best, has a way of capturing the inwardness and the mystery of "ordinary" male faces that is compelling. Most war art is either grandiose or merely expressive of the artist's own reaction to war ("It's horrible!"). These sketches and some of Kennington's more considered work (for example, the painting "Gassed and Wounded", or the wonderful series of prints "Making Soldiers") seem to express something of the experience of the men pictured: they are portraits of men in uniform, rather than sketches of objects known as "soldiers". Remarkably, that is quite an unusual accomplishment.

Apparently, one of my grandfather's favourite jokes was this:

Boy: What's a soldier for, Dad?
Dad: To 'ang things on, son.

He had been an infantry sergeant in WW1, so would have known. One of my father's was this:

Private 1: That General Montgomery spoke to me the other day, you know!
Private 2: Cor, really? What did he say?
Private 1: He said, "Get out of my fuckin' way, soldier!"


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...


Interesting taste in art.

What is the Engish perspective on Monty? The joke would seem there is some ... ambivalence?

Did your father have much use for motor bikes after the war?


Mike C. said...


Montgomery was mainly despised by his men. By contrast, General Slim (14th Army in Burma) had risen from the ranks and was universally loved by his men. My dad fought with both, and always resented the way the Monty myth overshadowed the achievements of Slim.

Dad loved his bikes before, during and for a while after the War, but my Mum made him give them up. She wanted him to live, I suppose... Ditto the drums he used to play. She wanted him at home, not out with a band every weekend. She was a force of nature, my Mum, and not to be trifled with.


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